Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood #20booksofsummer

Historical Fiction 5*s

The year is 1843, the place is Ontario, Canada and the victims are Thomas Kimner and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Thomas had been shot whilst Nancy had been strangled.  James McDermott, Thomas Kimner’s stable hand and Grace Marks his maid were apprehended trying to escape to America and put on trial for murder. James McDermott was hanged whilst Grace was imprisoned for life. These are the facts that Margaret Atwood uses as the base of her multi-faceted novel to bring Grace’s story to life, whether her version comes close to the truth the reader will have to decide.

“I have of course fictionalized historical events (as did many commentators on this case who claimed to be writing history). I have not changed any known facts, although the written accounts are so contradictory that few facts emerge as unequivocally ‘known.’”

 By the time we meet her Grace has been imprisoned for quite some time. A model prisoner she is engaged as a maid to the Governor of the prison where she is being held. Petitions for her release have been a feature of those who protest her innocence but one man, the fictional Dr Simon Jordan wants to use her to explore her sanity, he has a goal to open a private clinic and a case study that gets attention could help him along this road. But is or was Grace ever insane? Why else would a young maid suddenly turn on her employers and become a notorious murderess? Or is there other elements to the story that the Victorian values of the day could not or would not see?

It is the conversation that Grace has with Dr Jordan that gives us her background, the long arduous journey from Dublin, the trials of living with a feckless father and younger siblings to care for and Grace’s ‘escape’ into working life as a maid, with friends who teach her the ways of the world. No one can say Grace’s story is anything but captivating and it’s bolstered by the picture of Grace recounting it whilst stitching at the table in the Governor’s house. Grace explains to Dr Jordan about the quilts that every young woman should have before she marries, the stories behind the different patterns these objects that were in every household having their own stories to tell. And of course the Doctor doesn’t know what is true and we are reminded of the uncertainty of the narrative by some fairly nifty switches from the first to the third person, denoting thoughts and words within the text itself. This gives the narrative a nebulous feel, the truth surely lies somewhere within the book, but it may be you have to decide where.

I was enchanted not only by Grace’s own story but the way that she uncovers the lives of many other women in the course of her conversations with the good Doctor. From her mother, to her friend and fellow maid Mary Whitney and Nancy the Housekeeper and mistress of Thomas Kimner then up the ranks to the daughters of the Governor who still covet a quilt for their own dowry but will have someone else carry out the minute stitching for them. Each is worthy of a story in their own right leaving me stuffed full of life-like characters by the time I turned the last page on Grace Marks and her story.

Alias Grace was my sixteenth read for my 20 Books of Summer 2017  challenge, a fine example of a true crime being used as inspiration for a novel, and a highly accomplished one at that.

First Published UK: 1996
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages: 560
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

Author:

A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

31 thoughts on “Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood #20booksofsummer

  1. I read this about fifteen years ago at the behest of a friend who was trying to persuade me that Margaret Atwood was the greatest living writer. Perhaps I went into it with too high expectations, but I found it like wading through treacle. I’ve read a lot more Atwood since then and for the most part enjoyed it, so perhaps the time has come to revisit Grace and see if I could get to like her rather better.

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    1. I have read some of Margaret Atwood’s other books but this was the one I really wanted to read as I’m currently on a fad of reading books inspired by true-crime and this is way up there on the list. I liked how the character works whether you want to believe Grace was guilty or innocent – very clever.

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    1. I have read some of her other books which really aren’t my typical genre at all (it says something for the quality of her writing that I persevered) but this is just my type of read and it is so brilliantly executed.

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  2. I’m really glad you enjoyed this, Cleo. Atwood is so good at developing characters, and inviting the reader to get invested in them. And the historical setting adds to it, I think.

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    1. This was the perfect read for books inspired by true crime and Margaret Atwood did a fantastic job of presenting Grace in such a way that if you wanted to believe in her innocence, you could but equally it you could if you wanted interpret it entirely in the opposite direction.

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  3. A few years ago I went through a bit of an Atwood phase but I missed this book. Sounds fascinating though and I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

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  4. Sounds excellent and, since I’ve thrown my willpower over the wall already this week, I shall stic it promptly on my wishlist without a moment’s guilt! The story and name of Grace Marks sound familiar – I have a feeling this case has turned up in some other book I’ve read, a factual one, but I can’t bring to mind which book at the moment.

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  5. Such a brilliant book. My mum recently read it too, and between you both you make me want to re-read it. Coincidentally I am reading Margaret Atwood now too, her short stories Stone Mattress which is absolutely brilliant.

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  6. A fine review of a very compelling novel. I’m glad you liked it, particularly given your penchant for this type of story. It was a book club read for me, back in the days when our old group was still in existence. Needless to say it gave rise to a very interesting discussion, especially as far as Grace was concerned!

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